Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cue Talent

‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master. ”And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master. ”Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours. ”But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:14-30

The Divine M, who is preaching on this parable this morning, notes that the message could be construed to offer clues where Jesus might stand on the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Any Keynesian economist would assume that the rich man in this story got rich at the expense of the many who are poor. Yet Jesus appears to approve not only the rich man’s praise of servants whose shrewd investments paid off, but he especially relishes the man’s condemnation of the “wicked and lazy slave” who buried his capital in the ground.

On the surface, this could be the biblical foundation for a Christian MBA program. But let’s not get carried away. It could also be interpreted as a program for keeping your slaves productive and happy. We all know that our Southern Baptist antecedents were skilled at this kind of isogesis when they claimed biblical justification for fact that they and their missionaries owned slaves. (Parenthetically, not all Baptists felt that way; it was on this very issue that Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845.)

So we are forewarned that it is wise to read the bible carefully to avoid reading into it messages that are not there. In the parable of the talents, is Jesus praising rich slave owners? Or – as we have been taught in our Sunday schools from time immemorial – is he praising people who make the most of the gifts God has given them?

It’s convenient, at least in English, that the biblical word “talent” is the same word we use to describe those human qualities that make us who we are.

A talent (in Latin, a talentum) is an ancient unit of mass. It corresponded generally to the mass of water in the volume of an amphora, a one foot cube. When used as a measure of money, it refers to a talent-weight of gold or of silver. In Jesus’ parable, no one knows exactly how much money is involved, but it’s clear we’re talking big bucks.

Human talent is far more difficult to measure.
When I was in college I took a film course at Shorty Yeaworth’s Cinema Institute (see and we went to the Philadelphia studio where Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” originated. We went there to learn how a television program was done, and I was deeply impressed by the skills and knowledge of my fellow students: the three camera operators who kept the picture centered and steady, the sound technicians who sat at huge control boards to maintain the intricate balance and treble and bass, the director who watched the show on three screens and sent instructions where the cameras should point and which view should be selected for the main screen. The gifts of many people behind the scenes of a television show are a hidden but essential part of any broadcast, and that day – as key grip – I wrapped a coil of heavy cable around my shoulder and felt privileged to be a part of this electronic miracle.

As the show prepared to go live, a student who said he was from Christian Television, which no one else had heard of, sat in the anchor chair as the technician focused the light on his powdered face and blow-dried hair. The young man, who up to this point had not exhibited any skills beyond a well-modulated voice, squinted into the camera and waited for a signal to do something.

In the control room we could hear the director count backwards. “… three … two … one …”

Then: “Cue talent.”

Suddenly the show was live, and the young man at the anchor desk began reading from a prepared script about the purpose of the program, which was mostly to give film students a chance to learn how to do it.

But the director’s final order stuck in my head. “Cue talent”? This was the first time I had heard the term that is used to describe the person in front of the camera – the anchor, the reporter, the weather guy, the sports woman, anyone whose picture appears on screen. Back in Shorty Yeaworth’s film course, my first reaction was that the phrase was replete with irony, because it referred to the least talented person in the room. In later years when I was a newspaper reporter, I often pondered this irony at the scene of a plane crash or tornado devastation when I was interviewed by late-arriving “talent” from local television stations who begged the print media reporters to fill them in. But that was merely a reminder that “talent” is a relative term, so let me go on record that there are thousands of truly talented television reporters, and I cite two of my favorites: Ann Curry of the Today Show, and my nephew Andy Jenks in Richmond (be his tweep @AndyJenksNBC12.)

Talent is something we regard highly in other people, and those who have a lot of it are objects of sometimes eccentric adulation, as when women scream ecstatically and throw their panties at rock bands. I’ve demonstrated a bit of that kind of fanaticism myself, as those who remember my high school idolatry of JFK will know. My years as a newspaper reporter in Pottstown introduced me to several idols of a different nature, including the late "Smokin' Joe" Frazier, a gentle Christian man with iron fists.

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, because I tell the story all the time, but in 1992 I was in National Airport in Washington waiting for a flight. I went to an empty gate so I could read without being jostled and opened the paper. Before long a ground agent escorted a tall, slightly stoop-shouldered man to the same gate. The man obviously had the same aim as mine – to sit quietly alone and read the paper before his flight was called. I looked up and recognized him immediately: it was Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, one of the most talented players in the history of baseball, who had been in Washington as a part of the 500th anniversary celebration of Columbus’ discovery of America.

The reason we admired Joe, even in his retirement, is his extravagant talent that set him apart from nearly every other player in the game. As Joe sank into his seat, I lowered my paper and stared at the back of his head. Occasionally a passerby my age or older would do a double take as they realized who was sitting at the gate. But we all respected Joe’s privacy, and he sat alone and unbothered for several minutes. Soon, his flight was called and the same ground agent – a woman so young I wondered if she had any idea who he was – came over and to escort to the entryway. He stood and flashed his Mr. Coffee smile and disappeared into the crowd.

I dropped my paper and walked over to Joe’s empty seat. Hesitating slightly as if I was approaching the burning bush, I sat down. I sat down in Joe DiMaggio’s warmth and gurgled with happiness.

My spouse, the Divine M, thinks that was more than a little weird. It wasn’t like I could absorb Joe’s talent or essence by sitting in his ninety-eight point six for a few seconds. But, I insist, it wasn’t like I was throwing my panties at him, either. It was an expression of manly obeisance to a genuine idol. And I’m glad I did it.

Talent is also the bread and butter of the theater. There are scores of supremely talented people on stage, but, sadly, there are millions of supremely talented people who never get a starring role or even a recall to audition.

One of the barriers to talent in the theater, I think, is that the key to success is often one’s physical appearance. Beauty is often more important than talent, and actors who would be perfect for the role of Evita or Reno Sweeney or Liza Doolittle will never be cast because someone doesn’t consider them pretty enough.

Thank God for high school and local theater, where there is much more leeway. In “Once on This Island,” the character of Ti Moune is a petite girl, a girl of color portrayed by one actor as a child and by another as a teenager. On the Broadway stage, the role was played by the beautiful and petite LaChanze, who fits the image perfectly, and in most big stage productions the same strict casting call is pursued.

In one high school production we saw, the child Ti Moune was portrayed by a lovely African American child, but between scenes she morphed into a tall, 200 pound white woman. This may have been confusing to the audience, but it was a creative way of using the most talented person in a pivotal role. And the equally talented cast was able to sing with a straight face the beguiling lyric, “Don’t you remember your little Ti Moune from the tree?”

Talent is much admired by all of us, but for some of us it is a vicarious admiration. We notice the talents in others but not in ourselves. This is a truth known to every pastor who has tried to recruit people for programs and ministries in the church – greeter, choir, evangelism, Christian education, newsletter, building maintenance – because a dismaying number of people are likely to respond, “Oh, I can’t. I have no gifts. I’m not talented that way.”

Here’s where the parable of the talents slaps many of us in the face. It seems safe enough to demurely turn away from a task on the grounds we’re not skilled enough to do it, and no doubt the pastor will express polite understanding and look elsewhere. But the still, small voice inside us may remind us of another response: “Throw this worthless slave into utter darkness, where there will weeping and gnashing of teeth.”


One point of this parable may be to remind us that the gracious modesty our mothers raised us to express may not always be the answer God is seeking when he calls us to do something. And another point seems to be that God has given each of us talents in abundance, no matter who we are. And when God calls us to use those talents and make them grow, God does not want to hear humble excuses.

All of us know people who talents are underestimated, either by themselves or others.

Lately I’ve been thinking of a cousin I haven’t seen for a half century or more. She was the daughter of my maternal grandmother’s brother and his wife, Uncle Everett and Aunt Wilma Close. Grace was a little older than my mother and her brother, and the cousins used to play together in Andes when they were children.

Grace still lived with her parents when I was a child and we visited the Closes whenever we were in Andes.

Grace used a wheelchair and she had a severe disability that was never identified. It could have been cerebral palsy She could not control the movements of her hands, which seemed to be constantly wrestling with one another, and she had difficulty forming words.

Aunt Wilma always dressed Grace in a black dress or flower print dress, possibly because it easier to get off and on, but the dress and the wheelchair created the illusion that Grace was an elderly lady. But she must have been in her thirties when I knew her. My mother said one of the games she and her brother would play with Grace when they were kids would be to hold her by the shoulders so she could pretend to walk like normal people. Grace’s hands would push gleefully against each other and she would laugh delightedly until her exhausted cousins had to put her down.

Grace lived quietly in her room in a farm house on the edge of the village of Andes. I don’t know if she could hold a book or read, and there was no television in the house. She may have listened to the radio, but I have no idea how she spent her days.

I do know that when we stopped by for visits, Aunt Wilma would greet us at the door and Uncle Everett go to his chair and the family would sit in silent Yankee taciturnity, which was regarded as polite interaction. But when Grace wheeled into the room, laughing and squealing with delight that visitors had come, the mood changed. Whatever our spirits were, Grace would raise them – by laughter and smiles and undecipherable noises. She didn’t engage in conversations, but when we asked how she was she would nod and smile, making it clear that everything was perfectly fine as far as she was concerned. Given that she spent her life trapped inside a dysfunctional body, her happiness was both uncanny and infectious.

I’m sure no one would have considered Grace to be a gifted or talented person, but this woman to whom nature had given so little invariably gave much to all who met her. She had been given the tiniest of talents, but somehow she reinvested what she had in an attitude that multiplied her gift ten fold.

In my youth I was in awe of supremely talented performers, politicians, and athletes. Heroes like President Kennedy and Joe DiMaggio and Joe Frazier were given substantial gifts by their creator, and they invested them with vigor, multiplying them in ways that would make Jesus proud. That’s why the rest of us, not having received the kinds of gifts they had, enshrine them in halls of champions.

At the same time, most of us were given greater gifts than Cousin Grace. If we’re not investing them as vigorously as she did, we should be ashamed of ourselves. For me, she will always be a reminder that we need not make excuses about our weaknesses, or seek to convince ourselves that, given the overwhelming challenges facing us in life, there is little we can do to make a difference in the church, in our households, in our communities, or in our world.

Maybe we don’t have the skills or the gifts to change the church or the world. But God has given us sufficient gifts to make a difference, just as Grace made a difference in the lives of so many people in Andes.

God didn’t judge Grace for not changing the world. But God does judge her as a good and trustworthy servant because she multiplied her gifts many fold. As her earthly life came to an end, I have no doubt of the Lord’s greeting to her: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

May we all be inspired by heroes like Joe DiMaggio and John Kennedy. But may we base our lives on the faithfulness of people like Grace, who were given so little but turned what they had into manifold blessings.

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